Mystic, Connecticut was once a bustling port filled with whaling ships set to embark on dangerous, and lucrative, voyages across the world.
A ship’s homecoming after such a voyage brought promise not only of valuable spermaceti, which was used in cosmetics and candles, but also of more exotic cargo, like tropical fruit and spices. Seafaring husbands would often bring their wives these goods from far-off places like New Zealand and Japan, and the suppers enjoyed on the eve of a ship’s return were indeed festive affairs.
Sometimes, if a whaler was lucky enough to have enjoyed a bit of leisure on the high seas, he would also present his wife with a crimping wheel or birdcage delicately carved from whalebone. Known as scrimshaw, these intricate works of whalebone were treasured by families of seafaring men.
But the return of a whaling ship was a special occasion. The lives of Mystic families were usually far more austere. Sunday heralded a roast beef, or some boiled fowl. The rest of the week saw stews of beans and root vegetables, with a piece or two of salt pork thrown in for flavor.
On the busiest day of the week, wash day, when the stove was taken over by boiling pans of water and steaming irons, only the simplest dish was served — usually a sweet and savory pot of baked beans. Here’s a traditional recipe, as recorded in The Mystic Seaport Cookbook, for a tasty pot of baked beans from an old seafaring family.
Sea Cook’s Baked Beans
2 pounds dried beans
1/2 to 3/4 pound salt pork
1 medium-sized onion (optional)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Soak beans in cold water overnight. In the morning, parboil until skins crack. Transfer to beanpot and add salt pork cut down to the rind in cubes. Cut the apple into chunks and bury them and the onion in the beans. Mix sugar, molasses, mustard, pepper and salt with about 2 cups boiling water and pour over beans and pork. Bake in a 300 degree F. oven for 6 hours. Add water when necessary. If you like the pork crisp, take off the cover for the last 30 minutes or so. Makes 8 to 10 servings.